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David Hegg: A look at deception, morality and nature of deceit

Ethically Speaking

Posted: November 6, 2010 3:57 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Over years spent teaching ethics, I have found that most ethical situations can be best illustrated by the behavior of small children.

It seems that we come into this world with an ethical code preprinted on our consciences, which the effects of time and society begin to manipulate from our first hour.

Soon we can become quite dogmatic in our assessment of all things ethical, even though we may be wrong according to the textbooks.

We have become our own standard and masters of the immediate critique of others’ ethics.

“You lied to me,” my 5-year-old daughter exclaimed. I remember it clearly. Seems I had told her that we’d do something at some point in the week. That point came and went, and she determined that the lack of fulfillment constituted deceit.

In her mind, deceit pertained to any event where she did not receive what she believed was her right to receive.

The textbooks would disagree with that definition, but it would have made no difference to her. She had become her own standard. But the great ethical question is this: Had I really lied to her?

The whole area of deceit is one where our experiences often determine our belief. What truly constitutes deceit? And is deceit always morally wrong? Does motivation play a determining role? Who gets to decide?

The recent political season subjected us all to myriad declarations of truth, with the corresponding proclamations that “what my opponent told you was a lie!” At times, we despaired that we could ever really know the truth. But it all got me thinking about the ethical nature of truth, and deceit, and the place each plays in our society.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just look at deceit. And let’s simply define it as any intentional statement that is contrary to fact. Right away we see that motive must be involved if deceit is to happen. When I told my daughter we would do something that I fully intended to do, I was not lying. The fact that I didn’t follow through wasn’t deceit as much as unfaithfulness to my promise. I may have been derelict, but I wasn’t deceitful.

But the area of deceit raises an even more pressing question: Is deceit every legitimate? Can it ever be morally acceptable, and even honorable? A quick survey of our everyday lives gives the answer. Is it morally wrong for you to leave the lights on in your house when you leave to “deceive” the would-be thief into choosing another target? And what about when the quarterback fakes the run and throws a pass? Is the husband morally wrong when he “lies” about how his wife actually looks in that new outfit? And what about deceiving the German army as to the time and place of the Normandy invasion?

The fact is that history and everyday life are full of examples in which deceit is not only allowed, but considered honorable.

But I am sure this raises even graver questions. Are we now opening our ethical categories to allow for deceit? How can we ever recover truth from sliding down this slippery slope? This is the real question: When is deceit morally wrong?

The answer has intrigued theologians, ethicists and all deep thinkers for centuries, and their insights are invaluable here.

The concerted answer runs something like this: Deceit is morally wrong when it is intentionally used to obscure or set aside the truth from those who have a moral right to know the truth.

Societal norms have long ago determined that in certain situations there is no moral right to know the truth. The defensive line has no moral right to know if the quarterback intends to run or pass.

The very nature of football includes this tacit acknowledgement. It has also been established that enemies in war or in the situation of home invasion have no moral right to know the truth of our invasion or protection strategy. Those who would use our declaration of truth to perpetrate evil against us will have a hard time proving a moral right to know that truth.

Yet it must be agreed that the greatest number of situations in our lives demand that we be truthful. Constituents do have a moral right to know the truth about — and from — their elected officials. Spouses, parents, partners, neighbors, congregants and a whole array of other everyday people exist in the moral arena where truth is the life blood.

Our society only can exist in an ordered and beneficial way if truth is pervasive. But truth must be understood correctly, even as it is guarded and demanded courageously.

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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